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Gerard Butler is a fine actor capable of great nuance, a line usually guaranteed to get a laugh. No, but he is. It’s just that he’s chosen the action-guy route in films like the (Olympus, London, Angel) Has Fallen series rather than the sensitive thespian path he could have taken after 2004’s Frankie (plenty of nuanced Butler there). Greenland gives us a lot of one sort of Butler and enough of the other to suggest that the actor is weighing up a return to actual acting, rather than continuing exclusively to pull Action Man poses.

Because Greenland is a movie with nuance and some psychological depth wrapped up in a very familiar disaster epic of boombastic proportions.

Butler plays John, the familiar Butler hero – a meat-and-potatoes family man at the white-collar end of a blue-collar industry (building). Manly yet monied, in other words, but with a stain on his blotter, as per. John’s wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) wants to leave him over some unspecified indiscretion. It probably isn’t a closeted gay affair.

On top of this mild threat is dropped a massive one. A comet is hurtling towards Earth. It isn’t expected to do too much damage, John’s sparky diabetic son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) tells his dad. And then John gets an automated phone call telling him he and his family have been “selected” and they’re to report to an air force base immediately for evacuation.

From here things move quickly into an unfamiliar disaster-movie scenario – there are the “saved” elite and the “damned” who haven’t been “chosen” and there is a fair bit of dealing with the fallout of that, from long-standing friendships between neighbours shattering to the feelings of guilt associated with having been chosen. And then, choppy uncharted waters having been crossed, we’re into proper disaster-movie territory: the might of the US military, chaos, panic, hysteria, explosions, fireballs, lives lost on a massive scale, but not (phew) the lives of our heroes.

Whether the government have been lying to the populace and whether the media have gone along with that are boxes ticked very lightly as John, Allison and Nathan get repeatedly separated while heading first for an airforce base, then for Canada (so often a safe haven in US disaster movies) and finally for Greenland. For reasons which are left unexplained the insensate lumps of fragmenting comet are targeting population centres – the US is getting it bad but “Western Europe” is getting it worse. Western Europe. Is that someone’s Cold War upbringing poking out?

The comet rains down on a freeway
A hard rain

If you saw 2010’s Buried – Ryan Reynolds trapped in a box underground – you’ll already be familiar with the work of Greenland writer Chris Sparling. Jeopardy and its psychological impact are his forté and we get plenty of it here. It’s also interesting that Neil Blomkamp was originally slated to direct, the “chosen” and “damned” being the theme he’s dealt with in every feature film he’s made to date, District 9, Elysium and Chappie.

Instead it’s former stuntman Ric Roman Waugh calling the shots and he does an excellent job, shooting Greenland like it’s one of those terrible nightmares where just as you’re about to get hold of something it slips further from your grasp. Camera shake and panic, disorientating edits and hysteria, panoramas of massive destruction.

In many ways it’s a grungier re-reun of the 2012 disaster movie The Impossible – nice holidaying family Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami – the big-bang epic with a human face, but given Greenland’s 2020 release it’s also tempting to see the whole thing as a metaphor for the covid pandemic.

It’s a lovely idea except the film was made before even a squeak had been heard from Wuhan, so no dice. Enjoy the mayhem.

Greenland – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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